This article originally appeared in Censorship News Issue 126

“Disparaging” trademarks

The controversy behind Lee v. Tam began in 2011 when musician Simon Tam, an Asian-American, attempted to trademark his band’s name, The Slants. The Patent and Trademark Office rejected the trademark based on a provision of the 1946 Lanham Act that prohibits trademarks that “may disparage” people, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols. Tam subsequently sued on First Amendment grounds and won in a federal appeals court. At oral arguments in the Supreme Court, Justice Kagan likened the trademark regime to “a fairly classic case of viewpoint discrimination,” noting that it permits trademarks that “say good things about something” but not those that “say bad things about something.” Justice Alito similarly hinted the Patent and Trademark Office was stretching “the concept of a government program past the breaking point.” The outcome in Lee will almost certainly determine the fate of the Washington Redskins’ trademark, which was also revoked under the “disparaging” standard.

Sex offenders on social media

Packingham v. North Carolina concerns a state law enacted in 2008 that makes it a felony for a registered sex offender to access a wide variety of websites which are accessible to minors, including countless sites like Facebook and Yelp. In 2002, Lester Packingham, a 21 year old college student, pleaded guilty to taking “indecent liberties with a minor”; he received a suspended sentence and supervised probation, but was required to register as a sex offender. He was arrested in 2010 for violating the 2008 law after he posted a message on Facebook celebrating the dismissal of a traffic ticket. Packingham argues that North Carolina’s law sweeps too broadly, in violation of his First Amendment rights. At oral arguments in February, a number of justices expressed skepticism about the law. A decision is expected by the end of June.